Journal of the History of Biology 36: 618-619, 2003.

© 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.



Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and

Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

2002), xx + 587 pp., illus., $35.00.


The dilemma a reviewer faces when confronted with this magisterial tome, especially when writing for the JHB, is how to treat the material that comes at the end of the book. In part IV, the author deals with the heritage of what has occupied him in the great bulk of the volume, romantic natural science and philosophy in Germany from the late eighteenth century to roughly 1830.

Readers of this journal will likely be drawn immediately to the epilogue, where, in a final chapter, Richards deals with “Darwin’s Romantic Biology.” The author’s claims about Darwin, recapitulation, and progressive evolution are well known from his earlier book (The Meaning of Evolution, 1992) and have long been debated. His argument is made with even greater force here since it relies on an assumption that governs the whole book: to understand the romantic mind one must become intimately acquainted with it. Doubtless there will be those who will maintain, in spite of Richards’s best efforts, that Darwin was no romantic biologist. But neither they nor any other reader can hope simply to read the chapter on Darwin and be in any position to reply to Richards’s claims about the author of the Origin. One simply has to read the whole book. And that is as it should be, for it is in parts I–III of this marvelously written work where the real achievement has been wrought.


            It is, of course, now unfashionable to judge a book as the “definitive” treatment of its subject. Recognizing that future historians may view science and philosophy in the age of Goethe differently from Richards, I nonetheless remain confident that The Romantic Conception of Life will be a book they will not only continue to consult and to learn from for a long time to come, but one to which they repeatedly will have to defer. It is the product of years of research by one of the few historians capable of dealing with the abstruse (p.  618) primary materials of German thought that quickly drive away the meekhearted. No one has delved into the works of the German intellectuals of these years as exhaustively as Richards has, and no one has made better sense of them either. To follow the story is not always easy, but it is enormously rewarding.


            Richards is convinced that the only way to judge the kind of thinking Friedrich Schlegel dubbed romantic is to become immersed in it. This means that biographical detail is not merely interesting and helpful, it is essential. To appreciate the way in which aesthetic experience reconfigures cognition itself for these passionate people one must appreciate the role, for example, of the erotic in their lives. The emotion-filled world of lived romantic experience informs the intellectual articulation which emerged from it. And this is the nub of his argument about Darwin. Richards demonstrates clearly that there can be no doubt about Darwin’s reverent estimation of Alexander von Humboldt’s romantic descriptions of nature and of his own wish to emulate it. One who experienced the world as passionately as did Darwin in his trip around the world betrays a mentality that should not surprise us when we find it forcing its way through in his work; on the contrary, the historian would have a major a problem were it not to show through.


            While it is difficult to find one, I can register one complaint. Richards missed an opportunity to include a reference to the unique mechanical account of organism J. F. Fries used to oppose Schelling, who had originally inspired him. It would have rounded out his otherwise exhaustive treatment of Schelling, but in light of the impressive mastery of the secondary literature surrounding his subject, my complaint borders on nitpicking. There are, of course, questions some will want to ask about his position on Darwin. How much of Darwin’s romantic conception did his contemporaries sense? Are we to understand Herschel’s objection to the “higgelty-piggelty” of natural selection merely as a protest against Darwin’s rejection of a classical teleology that missed the deeper sense of pantheistic purpose Darwin shared with Humboldt and the German romantics?


            In the end, however, this is a grand work. Richards states his goal for the book to be: “To expose the roots of nineteenth-century biological thought, so that this thought might be reconsidered” (p. 511). Like Goethe, whom he admires so deeply, Richards believes he must, as he says, crack through thought that has been encrusted by traditional presumption and surface interpretation so that we might reconceive the meaning of past events to discover in them a new character, a new being. That he has certainly done, and we will be long in his debt.


Frederick Gregory